Most adults have had a skin tag at one time or another, and they’re typically nothing to worry about.
“Skin tags are small, benign growths of skin,” says Dr. Susan Massick, a board-certified dermatologist with the Ohio State University department of dermatology in Columbus. These soft growths can vary in size and tend to range from about 2 or 3 millimeters up to about a half-an-inch.
Also called acrochordons, skin tags appear with a narrow base that forms a stalk-like structure. They’re fed by tiny blood vessels and are usually the same color as the surrounding skin, though they’re sometimes lighter or darker.
“They occur when the body produces extra cells within the skin’s top surface, in areas of skin folds and areas where natural movement causes the skin to rub against itself, such as armpits, under breasts, neck or eyelids,” says Dr. Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist and writer with MyPsoriasisTeam, the social network for those living with psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis. They also sometimes grow on the eyelids.
“Generally speaking, skin tags are harmless and benign, but some people may feel self-conscious about their appearance, especially when they’re in highly visible areas, like around the neck, or in large clusters,” Massick says.
They can also become irritated, particularly if they’ve developed in areas of high friction. For example, if you have skin tags on your thighs, during exercising, they can become abraded and inflamed.
Same with ones that develop under the breasts — bras can irritate these growths. Necklaces, collars, seat belts and long hair can also irritate skin tags on the neck.
What Causes Skin Tags?
Massick says there’s “no known specific cause” of skin tags, but they’re found more often in older adults.
Dr. Richard Torbeck, assistant professor of dermatology and director of cancer surgery with the Blavatnik Family Chelsea Medical Center and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, says that skin tags were once thought to be associated with gastrointestinal issues, such as polyps, “but this has not held up in review.”
Dr. Stephanie Campbell, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Campbell Dermatology and Aesthetics in McMinnville, Oregon, notes that “some studies show an association with obesity or diabetes, especially if there are multiple skin tags and they’re seen alongside other skin findings of diabetes.”
Those skin symptoms may include darker, velvety patches on the skin (typically the back of the neck and armpits), a condition called acanthosis nigricans. The blood sugar disorder can also contribute to the development of dark or discolored spots, hard or thickened patches of skin, blisters, infections or open sores and wounds.
There are some rare genetic conditions like Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome (a genetic condition that can lead to lung cancer) and Cowden syndrome (an inherited disorder that raises risk for several types of cancer including skin, breast and kidney cancer) that may be associated with skin tags.
“However, the skin tags are not the only symptom to develop,” in these situations, Torbeck says.
Some people are also just more prone to developing skin tags, Massick says. “There can be a genetic predisposition (meaning they run in families), but they aren’t a sign of a genetic disease.”
Skin tags tend to show up about equally in men and women and “are present across all ethnicities,” Campbell says.
When to See a Doctor
If you’ve got a lot of skin tags or the appearance of these growths changes suddenly, “it would be best to ask a board-certified dermatologist to evaluate and get you to the appropriate treatment,” Torbeck says. A spate of new skin tags could indicate an underlying condition like diabetes has developed.
If a skin tag becomes bothersome, as can happen when it’s rubbed repeatedly or gets caught on clothing, that might also mean it’s time to visit your doctor. An irritated skin tag may start to hurt and swell. It might even bleed.
Massick recommends visiting your doctor or a board-certified dermatologist anytime you have a skin lesion that’s bothering you. “Even if it turns out to be just a harmless skin tag and nothing more, accurate diagnosis and peace of mind are really important.”
You should also definitely see a doctor if your skin tag shows any of the following:
— Changes color.
— Becomes painful or sore.
— Gets irritated.
— Rapidly changes size, shape or appearance.
“In very rare occasions, a more concerning skin condition like a melanoma, or other skin cancer, can be mistaken for a skin tag,” Massick says. Because of this, she adds, “when in doubt, have it checked.”
How to Remove Skin Tags At Home
While skin tags are usually harmless, a lot of people don’t like the way they look and they start asking a simple question: how to get rid of skin tags? There are lots of over-the-counter products labeled as skin tag removers, but these “typically do not work,” Massick says. “OTC wart removers, such as liquid salicylic acid, likely will cause more skin irritation rather than effectively or consistently removing a skin tag. Skin tags are not viruses in the skin and don’t tend to respond to OTC wart removers.”
There are also some OTC freezing products out there. “If cold enough, some really tiny skin tags could respond, but generally speaking, OTC freeze-away options are typically not cold enough to adequately freeze off a skin tag,” Massick says.
Drying agents such as tea tree oil and apple cider vinegar are sometimes used as a DIY, at-home remedy for skin tags. Like wart removers, these agents can be irritating to the skin and may not be effective. But if you want to try them, wash the area well with soap and water and pat dry. Apply the tea tree oil or vinegar to the skin tag and massage it into the surface. Cover the area with a bandage.
With tea tree oil, leave the bandage in place overnight, but if you’re using vinegar, leave it on for about 15 or 20 minutes, and then wash the area again thoroughly. Repeat daily until the skin tag drops off.
One time-tested, do-it-yourself approach that sometimes works if done correctly is to tie a bit of string or dental floss around the base of the skin tag to cut off its blood supply. Massick says this can work, “but you have to tie tightly as close to the base or skin surface as you can. And you must leave it on until the skin tag eventually falls off.” In other words, this approach requires a lot of patience.
Most doctors don’t recommend doing this, as it may not work and there can be a risk of infection. “I usually recommend seeing a dermatologist for minimally invasive removal — either scissor removal (with or without anesthesia) or liquid nitrogen treatment,” Torbeck says.
Chacon also urges that you get professional help with skin tags. “Many over-the-counter skin tag removal products carry a higher risk of complications such as scars, excessive bleeding, infection or incorrect diagnosis.”
Campbell cautions against trying to remove skin tags at home because while they’re usually not a sign of cancer, “they can sometimes be confused with other similar appearing tumors or moles. If there’s any doubt of the diagnosis, your board-certified dermatologist or health care professional may perform a skin biopsy.”
Don’t attempt to remove a skin tag that’s on your eyelid or near your eye. See your doctor for assistance with any lesions on or around the eyes.
Dermatologists Say Visit a Doctor for Skin Tag Removal
A much faster and more effective skin tag removal option is to visit your doctor. Your dermatologist can very quickly and efficiently remove a skin tag using one of two main methods:
— Cryotherapy or freezing the tag off with liquid nitrogen. “Bear in mind that liquid nitrogen is -197 degrees Celsius, so this works well with small skin tags. Liquid nitrogen freezing forms a small blister, and when blister falls off, so will the skin tag,” Massick explains.
— Cutting the skin tag off with a blade or sharp scissors. This can help remove larger skin tags, but should only be done by a doctor. “The benefit of having your dermatologist remove them is that a numbing medicine can be applied if needed and we have tools to stop bleeding,” she says.
Lastly, there’s not much you can do to prevent skin tags. And removing a skin tag doesn’t prevent a new one from popping up, Massick says. “Don’t assume that a skin tag in the vicinity of previously removed skin tag is a recurrence — it’s usually simply a new skin tag.” Removing them also doesn’t cause skin tags to spread or multiply, because “skin tags are not contagious, infectious, or related to hygiene.” Some people are just more prone to getting them than other people.
Visiting your dermatologist for a thorough skin exam annually can help you keep these benign growths in check.
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Update 07/18/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.